Cattle in this country are fed corn, which upsets their stomachs, so they are given antibiotics, which end up in the beef we eat. Fertilizer made from the manure from these cattle?and other food animals treated with antibiotics?may also put antibiotics into the vegetables we eat. The danger in all this is that it could lead to antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

The USDA has been evaluating the impact of antibiotic feeding in livestock production on the environment, trying to figure out whether food crops accumulate antibiotics from soils spread with manure that contains antibiotics. The irony is that it’s organic farming that relies most heavily on manure fertilizer. In fact, it’s mandated if vegetables are labeled “organic.”

Plant uptake of antibiotics was evaluated in a greenhouse study involving three food crops: corn, lettuce, and potatoes. Plants were grown on soil modified with liquid hog manure containing a commonly used veterinary antibiotic. This antibiotic was absorbed by all three crops.

Concentrations of antibiotics were found in the plant leaves. Concentrations in plant tissue also increased as the amount of antibiotics present in the manure increased. It also diffused into potato tubers, which suggests that root crops, such as potatoes, carrots, and radishes, that directly come in contact with soil, may be particularly vulnerable to antibiotic contamination.

The ability of plants to absorb antibiotics raises the potential for contamination of human food supply. However, researcher Satish Gupta says, “The adverse impacts of consuming plants that contain small quantities of antibiotics are largely unknown.” Does he say this because the USDA funded this study?

Ironically, researcher Holly Dolliver points out that the biggest problem may be for organic farmers, who use manure as the main source of crop nutrients, since organic regulations prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizer. However, organic farmers are not prohibited from using manures containing antibiotics.

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